Voice and Aspiration: How minority students as multilingual learners experience their multilingualism and construct identities in Southwest China

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Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
This dissertation addresses several issues in relation to language policy and language education in Yunnan, China. In this study, I explore the multilingual experiences and evolving identities of 12 ethnic minority students at Yunnan Normal University in Southwest China as they are concurrently influenced by global, national, local, and educational discourses. Yunnan is a frontier province of China with great ethnic diversity. It is home to 25 of China's 55 officially recognized ethnic minority groups. Fifteen of those groups are Indigenous in Yunnan Province. In this dissertation, I describe the language policy context and demographic features of ethnic minorities in Yunnan, with a focus on their multilingual education and multilingual identities. In doing so, I discuss the dwindling enthusiasm among minority students to learn and maintain their ethnic mother tongue. Chinese (Mandarin) is typically regarded as a means of social mobility within the country, and English is seen as a way of entering a globalized world. These students are left in dilemmas caused by China's parallel policies to promote Mandarin Chinese nationwide while embracing English language throughout the education system. Being forced to capitulate to the dominance of Mandarin Chinese and English, they are under pressure to keep their ethnic differences. That is, to maintain their own languages, cultures, and identities. Within this policy context, I refer to international literature on multilingualism and multilingual education to understand the experiences, identities and agencies of 12 minority students. My study is multilayered in that I also investigated the institutional structure of Yunnan Normal University (YNNU), the English education program at YNNU, as well as the sociocultural contexts of the Bai, Hani, Dai and Lisu peoples respectively. Based on the data collected by a variety of qualitative methods including interviews, written autobiographies, online chatting and participant observation, I provided in-depth analysis and detailed description of how the 12 multilingual minority students perceived their multilingualism, and how they constructed and negotiated their identities when navigating the mainstream educational discourses. The portraits I convey in the dissertation are holistic, based on emic accounts of the participants, revealing the many challenges they confronted and their exercise of agency to surmount obstacles as they pursued their education. By situating their multilingual experiences and identity construction in the larger context of China's language education, this study bears implications for multilingual education, not only in Yunnan and China, but also in other parts of the world. Poignantly, writing this work in English has provided me with possibilities to make Yunnan's ethnic minorities known around the world while writing in Chinese, or the students' ethnic language such as Bai, Dai, Hani, Lisu would not. It is hoped this work will lift the voice of multilingual minority students whose struggles and resiliency speak back to the language policies and educational practices that often serve to create marginalization.
270 pages.
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Thesis advisor: Marshall, Steve
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